2020 Tokyo Olympics: The History Behind the Olympic Torch

by Megan Molseed

This year’s Olympic Opening Ceremonies were much smaller than what they have traditionally been in years past. Normally, the Olympic’s Opening Ceremony events are packed full of supporters as the world prepares to kick off the biggest athletic competition on the globe. Part of this event is the traditional Olympic torch relay. Traditionally, the flame makes its way from Olympia, Greece in an event that is widely celebrated. In past games, the crowd witnessing this moment has held thousands and thousands cheering for the symbolic moment.

In a typical year featuring the Olympic games, thousands of runners would take part in this long-held ritual. Passing the symbolic torch as they went. Large crowds gathering to witness as the torch runners pass by.

However, this year, COVID-19 restrictions put a stop to large crowds attending Olympics Opening Ceremony traditions. However, while the Olympics ceremony may have looked different, organizers made sure the ritual stayed alive. This year, tennis star Naomi Osaka held the flame in a largely private ceremony and lit the cauldron ablaze with the flame. Symbolically beginning the long-awaited event.

What Started the Olympics Torch Relay

While this tradition is one that most hold dear when thinking about the Olympic games, the relay wasn’t always a part of the event. In fact, the first time this took place was in the 1936 Olympics Summer Games which were held in Germany. The Berlin Olympic’s chief organizer came up with the idea. That year, the flame traveled from its source in Olympia, through Athens, Sofia, Belgrade, Budapest, Viena, and Prague before it set the cauldron ablaze in the German capital. In all, the torch traveled by hand over 2,000 miles to light the cauldron in 1936.

This first relay took part in what was, at the time, Nazi Germany. Much of the idea behind the running of the torch was to symbolize the growing power of the Nazi-controlled country.

While this gave the event a dark history, eventually the origin of the tradition faded as the practice remained. Each of the Olympics events that followed that initial 1936 Olympics Torch Relay added a piece of its own to the tradition.

The first post-war Olympics event occurred in London in 1948. It was then that officials decided to resurrect the soon-to-be tradition. The run lasted through the night, bringing many onlookers out to watch the events. It was a spirit-lifting moment that many needed in post-war Europe.

A Twist to Each Relay

Since then, each Olympic game has started with the relay. Parabolic mirror lights the original flame in Olympia, Greece with the aid of sunlight. The flame is started this way because the mirror is thought to represent Apollo the Greek sun god.

Some years the flame finds its way to its destination via a variety of unique modes such as undersea by an experienced diver. Or hitch a ride with a ski-jumper. However, this year’s relay didn’t see that excitement. For many, the excitement lies in the fact that there was a flame to pass at all after the original Tokyo Summer Olympics were delayed indefinitely in March 2020.